African writing on the rise

[Image]We Need New Names, Noviolet Bulawayo’s debut novel.
(Image: Man Booker Prize website)

[Image]Noviolet’s name cames from “with” in Ndebele, and Violet was her mother’s name, so she’ll always be with her mother.
(Image: creativewriting.stanford.edu)

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Melissa Jane Cook

Noviolet Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean author and Stegner Fellow at the United States’s of America’s (USA) elite Stanford University, was shortlisted for the highly acclaimed Man Booker prize. She is also in line for the Guardian First Book Award.

Currently on a two-year writing programme at Stanford, Bulawayo is the first black African woman and the first Zimbabwean to be nominated for the Man Booker prize, which promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year. The most important literary award in the world, it has the power to transform the fortunes and futures of authors and publishers.

Born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele in Tsholotsho, Bulawayo, in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo earned her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at the USA’s Cornell University, where she was also awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship.

She adopted her pen name from her mother, Violet, who died when she was 18 months’ old. In the Ndebele group of languages, her first name means ‘with Violet’, while Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, is her childhood home.

She is the author of the 2011 Caine Prize-winning short story, Hitting Budapest (2010), about a gang of street children in a Zimbabwean shanty town, while her story Snapshot (2009) was shortlisted for the South Africa PEN Studzinski Award.

Her latest novel, We Need New Names, has won rave reviews from heavyweight critics around the world. The debut novel explores the toll President Robert Mugabe’s 33 years in power have taken on the country, through the eyes of ten-year-old Darling and her friends Stina, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Bastard. The children used to live in proper houses, with real rooms and furniture, but now they live in the ironically named shantytown of Paradise. They spend their days playing, stealing guavas from the wealthy Budapest suburb and wondering how to get the baby out of Chipo’s tummy. They dream of escaping to America, Dubai, and Europe.

We Need New Names was launched in September at the National Gallery in Bulawayo.

The author told Jill Coates, director of the British Council Zimbabwe: “We Need New Names is coming from a place of colourful names, and I think it’s generally known that Zimbabwe has that kind of culture, where parents give us these names that speak, that say something. They do sound normal in our native languages, but it’s only when you translate them to English that they have an interesting spin to them.”

“Africa is the centre of my writing; in America, you walk out the door and nobody notices you. At home you know you’re alive, part of a community, people are in your business.”

“During the holidays, we went to the rural areas where we would meet my grandmother and storytelling was the daily form of entertainment. I grew up thinking that it was just normal, that the world was told through stories and my father was also a storyteller.”

“I grew up surrounded by people who told stories. It planted the seed.”

“At school, I’d always be telling stories to my friends. I started reading books and found a connection: they were also stories, just like the ones I had heard. It really gives a lot to my voice in that when I write, I think of a listener, not necessarily a reader. I think the connection with told stories is more urgent; more true. You get one to two minutes to engage them, which taught me about voice and urgency. Which is why, when I write, my challenge is to write something that the reader can’t put down.”

Going home

The Africa Report states that in April, Bulawayo returned home for the first time in 13 years.

“One of the most heart-breaking things,” she says, “was to walk into what used to be the biggest bookstore in the country, Kingston Books, and finding they do not sell novels anymore, only stationery.”

She adds, “Books have been our way of engaging with the system, with what’s going on around, so I feel like things are being lost.”

However, despite the challenges facing the publishing industry, Bulawayo is very grateful to have found a local publisher, Weaver Press, which has published her novel.

On being the first black Zimbabwean woman nominated for the Booker prize, Bulawayo says, “It’s simply amazing, you know, you don’t write to be recognised. You write firstly to tell your story. Then you hope that a reader is going to find it worthwhile so for me to get this kind of recognition at this stage, I’m just starting out. We Need New Names is my first novel and I’m also the first Zimbabwean to ever make it this far and the first black African woman. It’s a very humbling experience and I’m very encouraged to keep working.”

Previous African Man Booker Prize winners are South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer and Nigeria’s Ben Okri.

*The Man Booker Prize 2013 was won by Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, on 15 October at London’s Guildhall.